So I work in History Land, rather than Library Land. Wild shift, but there you have it. Because I’m trying to keep up with the people I work with, I wind up doing a lot of reading. I have a goal to read one non-fiction book a week, because I have perfected the art of skimming text, and retaining important information… It will take me a month or more to read a novel. Shuddup.
Anyway, my coworker and I got on the subject of historians, and then broadened out to non-fiction writers in general who don’t do proper amounts of research, and fill in the gaps with fiction. They are annoying, and sometimes it’s an honest mistake. When it’s not, and someone bends the timeline to fit their narrative, that’s when it really makes my blood boil.
If you think your ears were burning, then I was ranting about you at work, because not only did you publish inaccurate information, you had the audacity to target one my friends in a public forum. You opened your mouth, and used your influence in your community to do permanent and irreparable damage to their life, and career(s, who has one job anymore?), because you were jealous they’re a better human being than you ever will be, and probably more talented. But hey, how can we find out if they’re too heartbroken to write? Congratulations, you’ve beat someone who wasn’t competing with you, but trying to work by your side. The only reason I haven’t stooped to your level and called you out by name, is because God reminded me I’m a Christian and revenge belongs to Him. Also, yeah. You need to check over your manuscript for the reprint. That’s not how it went down.
If you think your ears were burning because you did something awkward at that conference, where we were hanging out: Don’t worry about it, fam. I’m awkward too. I get two drinks in me and start taking selfies with people I just met. By the way, did I ever send that to you? Text me. Honestly, mistakes happen. Sometimes we make assumptions without having all the information, and then we have to change because we found new information. It’s chill, man. Just fix it for the reprint.
Anyway, the Nice Lady in the room, started giggling and asked “Helen, remind me what you write again?”
“Young adult fantasy, ma’am.”
“Ah. And in fantasy, I’m sure there’s not much research, because you’re making up everything, right?”
And unfortunately, I hit her with the “WeLl AcTuAlLy” and not in that tone, on purpose. I just know how I probably sound. And poor Nice Lady got trapped in a conversation about how I am so fricking frustrated with the intricacies of the Gishlan eco-system. Like I told her, “I don’t want a palm tree, just growing next to a cottonwood.” which, made her giggle, because of course, she’s nice, and was originally gently suggesting, maybe, just maybe, I should be nicer too. But I went on to explain “I had to make sure the soil would support cotton crops, because otherwise, everyone would have to wear leather.” The ecosystem mimics my homeland, Goshen County, with heavy spoonfuls of Oregon and California. Because a fourteen year old started this series for me, and she wrote a beautiful looking place that felt like home. I had family in all three places. Do you know how not impressive a redwood is to a four year old? Everything is big. What’s a big tree? Did you know we have cotton in the Bible Belt because of an iceberg that predated humanity deposited enough PH in the soil when it melted? The other part of the world where cotton grows easily is India. I had to learn that, so I could give us those nice princess dresses we all love so dearly.
I had to think about where they got wood to build furniture, where their rock quarries were, what kind of stone they had, I had to think about what kind of food they were able to grow, I had to look at the blue prints of multiple castles, to see how I wanted to build Slipsong Castle, which has housed 19 generations of Amethyst’s family, thus far. I just had to log in to an online database to tell you that. I had to build the Gishlan royals their own family tree, to keep them all straight. There is only so much land will support and I have to have approximate knowledge of these things so I don’t break science.
I didn’t tell the Nice Lady this because it was some sick own. It was just the truth. Yes, I can make up crap as I go along. But I wanna make up good crap, so I choose to research. I think she was actually interested, and curious, when I explained things like “If you have giant mushroom farmers, you need them to have an economy for mushrooms, an ecosystem that will support the mushrooms, a purpose for growing them, and you need to know how mushrooms work or the mycologists will come after you.” We can’t have the mushie farmers gathering their seeds in the fall. (Mushrooms don’t have seeds. They produce spores. So when you have that urge to kick shrooms in the field, it’s because that’s how they spread, and at one point, the instinct to kick the shroom probably kept some of your ancestors alive… Either that or the mushrooms are farming us for our delicious rotting corpses, and they told you to smack their sex organs to further their agenda. Cool right?!) Buy the t-shirt here.
So this is me telling you to go ahead and lose yourself in your research. Write what you know, but go forth and know more! The libraries, museums, and archives are here to help you do just that… The mushrooms on the other hand…
No one wants to see your character chase the bad guy through the house with a broadsword, and then get enlisted in the war, and go into battle with a cutlass. (Because I will die if I don’t over explain, everything, to everyone, all of the time: broadswords and claymores are supposed to be used in open spaces. Like fields. Battle fields. Cutlasses are smaller, and easy to maneuver around a confined space. Like your apartment. Which is why I sleep with one.) Guys, I’m telling you, if you’re a fantasy writer, get yourself a blacksmith. Here! Borrow mine! Lonnie is amazing and has spent hours teaching me about steel grades, knife types, general maintenance, and who else knows. I just absorb. One of these days, I will have him forge me a broadsword so I can practice acting out scenes before I put them on paper. Research! The one I have now, the balance is way off, and the pommel obviously isn’t doing anything.
Even when I was writing silly fanfiction for the The Road to El Dorado meme group, I took my happy self to the library, and asked for books about the Aztecs… In doing so, I found out I should’ve asked for Mayan! Either way, I wound up learning a lot about the culture, and the people. “You can’t write offensive content about a mermaid, because mermaids don’t exist.”–or so an indigenous woman sang to me on Tik Tok, to the tune of ‘Colors of The Wind’. If you have skin, and a culture, and you choose to write characters with different colored skin, and a different culture than yours, I strongly recommend you listen to people with that skin tone, and culture, talk about their experiences. Maybe even hire a sensitivity reader. There are plenty of content creators on social media, that will voice their frustrations with the entertainment industry, talk about their culture, and their experiences as a human with skin, that mushrooms will eventually eat. I don’t recommend you ask these content creators to work for you for free (you do that, you get what you deserve), but I recommend you actually consume their content and learn from it. Although the fic remains unfinished, I’m pretty fricking proud of what I made.
So yeah, that’s my advice for this month. Find what interests you, pull on a thread, then threaten your kidnappers with fan theories about ‘El Dorado’ and how it ties in to Mayan mythos. Google the domestication of cats, then have your characters ride large ones through your cotton fields! Write about how Alaska doesn’t really grow vegetables, but people still thrive there. Learn how to darn socks, and can fruit. Teach yourself folk magic, so you can borrow it for your wizards. Read old magazines from the 60’s, so you can get a handle on the fashion. Trap your entomologist friend with the sweet allure of coffee so you can try to understand how he’s trying to cure cancer with fly brains. After all, I was just picking my coworker’s brain about herbal remedies for colds, so I could give plants to my imaginary friends! Just go have some fun doing research! It’s still important, and kinda fun.